A Review of Inside Llewyn Davis with as few spoilers as possible…basically none.
If it’s true that no man is an island, then the Coen brothers have at the very least created a small, compact archipelago in their latest character, Llewyn Davis. The most recent Coen brothers venture, Inside Llewyn Davis, finds them tackling the pre-Bob Dylan, Greenwich Village folk scene circa 1961. Thanks in large to breathtaking performances by Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, and an apricot-colored cat, Inside Llewyn Davis is a highly enjoyable movie that is deeply melancholy and riddled with humor.
Loosely based on Greenwich Village folk legend Dave Van Ronk’s memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, the film finds Llewyn Davis at an unfortunate time in history. A time where Folk music had neither the respect nor the allure that it gained shortly after Bob Dylan arrived. John Goodman’s character, jazz musician Roland Turner, expresses the popular sentiment about Folk music when he asks Llewyn what he plays. “Folk songs,” Llewyn replies. “Folk songs? I thought you said you were a musician,” taunts Goodman’s character.
The lonely stage is set in the first scene for Llewyn Davis as he sits solo, singing a sad ballad called “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” (a Dave Van Ronk song). Not only does Oscar Isaac set the tone for the film by performing the song in its entirety, but he is actually playing and singing live, making the moment and the movie that much cooler. This traveler’s tune and the song that follows, “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” foreshadow the circuitous journey that the Coen brothers create with Llewyn Davis.
As Llewyn, the hapless hero (if you can call him that), stumbles through a week in his unfortunately sad and hilarious life, it is hard to ignore the strikingly atmospheric world that the Coen brothers bring to life. For those of us who have only lived in the 60’s through pictures, music, and album covers, this movie breathes life into the images, sounds, and emotions that once lived only in our minds.
In order to bring both a musical movement in history and a very internalized character to life, the Coen brothers needed an actor who possessed dramatic flare, dry humor, and real musical talent. Their search for a leading man saw auditions from Bright Eyes front man Conor Oberst and Scott Avett of The Avett Brothers before they finally landed the perfect man for the job, Oscar Isaac. Isaac’s ability to express Llewyn’s internal distress, loneliness, hopes, and fears with few words and usually nothing more than a somber look is award-worthy. Isaac embodies pure melancholia for the entirety of the film, while still managing to make Llewyn a character that audiences can empathize with. It’s impossible not to root for Llewyn, despite his obvious flaws, which are constantly spit at him by Carey Mulligan’s character, Jean. Each element in the movie, from the soundtrack to the cinematography, works together to create an immensely melancholy world that is both funny and smart. Watching Llewyn Davis try to navigate his way through a bitterly cold New York during the 60’s without even a winter coat is an unforgettable movie experience.
This film, for me, seemed to capture everything that I love about the Coen brothers. There were moments that reminded me of O, Brother Where Art Thou, A Serious Man, and countless other films made by the duo. I rank Inside Llewyn Davis in my top 3 Coen brother films (and that basically means it’s also in my top ten movies overall). As Llewyn utters the film’s final phrase, “Au revoir,” and brings the story full circle, I wasn’t ready for the movie to end. I think that’s how most great movies are, though. They allow you to continue living in the story even as you walk out of an overcast day in 1961 and into a sunny parking lot in 2014.
For any fan of Folk music and/or the Coen brothers’ genius, the film is not worth just one watch, but many. If you haven’t seen it yet, go. You won’t regret it. I’ve seen it twice now and recently bought the soundtrack, which is a must-have for any Folk fan. The film perfectly captures a musical moment in history through remarkable characterization and an intriguing narrative. Honestly, it’s just a really cool movie. While there’s still much to be said regarding Inside Llewyn Davis, the film speaks for itself. If you don’t believe me, then make your way to a theater, turn your cell phone off, and listen to Llewyn.